Jessy Dixon, songwriter and gospel singer, dies at 73

FILE - In this May 23, 2007 file photo, Jessy Dixon, left, performs with Yolanda Adams in Washington. Dixon, whose extensive travels helped popularize gospel music outside the United States, died Monday, Sept. 26, 2011 at his home in Chicago. He was 73. (AP Photo/Manuel Balce Ceneta, File) Manuel Balce Ceneta

Jessy Dixon, left, performs with Yolanda Adams in Washington on May 23, 2007.
AP

(CBS/AP) He was full of energy as a performer and a successful singer and songwriter. Jessy Dixon, who introduced his spirited style of gospel music to wider audiences by serving as pop singer Paul Simon's opening act, died Monday. He was 73.

Miriam Dixon said her brother died Monday morning at his Chicago home. She said he had been sick but declined to provide additional details.

During a more than 50-year career, Dixon wrote songs for several popular singers, including jazz and rhythm and blues singer Randy Crawford. He later wrote songs performed by Cher, Diana Ross, Natalie Cole and Amy Grant.

But it was for his gospel singing - religious music that combined the rhythmic beat of blues, jazz and soul - that Dixon first gained attention. It was during an appearance at the Newport Jazz Festival in 1972 with his Jessy Dixon Singers that Dixon first came to Simon's attention. For the next eight years, Dixon toured with the pop icon, collaborating on Simon's "Live Rhymin' Simon" and "Still Crazy" albums.

Dixon also played keyboard with Earth Wind and Fire and guitarist Phillip Upchurch.

Dixon, who began studying music at age 5, aspired to be classical pianist but told The Associated Press in a 1997 interview that he always knew his talent was destined for use in the church.

Born March 12, 1938, in San Antonio, Dixon's professional compass was set by gospel music legend James Cleveland, who heard Dixon's teen group perform at a theatre in the south Texas city. Dixon said Cleveland liked the group, but he liked Dixon more and persuaded him to move to Chicago to join his group, the Gospel Chimes, as both a singer and pianist.

Chicago's South Side was the place to be for a gospel musician, especially in the early 1960s.

"Going to church was like going to school," Dixon said. At church, he heard the likes of Mahalia Jackson and blues pioneer Thomas A. Dorsey, who is credited with creating modern gospel singing.

"Reading his (Dorsey's) music and studying it, he was the one who wrote for Tennessee Ernie Ford, Elvis Presley and Pat Boone," Dixon said. "All these people were singing his music and were making it commercial."

Dixon credited the creativity of artists like percussionist Maurice White and blues singer Willie Dixon, no relation, inspired him to compose. He started with choral music for Chicago's Thompson Community Singers, for which he sat at the keyboards. Several of his early songs have become classics, sung in churches across America, including: "Sit At His Feet and be Blessed," "These Old Heavy Burdens" and "I Love to Praise His Name."

His more recent compositions gained him even wider acceptance. Dixon's "I Am Redeemed," released in 1993, lingered on Billboard magazine's gospel chart for more than five years.

After his stint with Simon ended, Dixon rode a wave of increased gospel music interest during the 1980s to build a following in Europe.

During his 1997 interview, Dixon noted that when he first began touring on his own outside the United States in the 1980s, the small audiences didn't have much respect for gospel as religious expression.

"At first it was viewed as entertainment," he said. "But now when I go, they ask me to share my faith as a Christian."

In the United States, Dixon was a long-time fixture on composer and singer Bill Gaither's Gospel Series, video concert broadcast on religious oriented cable television stations.

During his career, Dixon produced five gold records and garnered several Grammy nominations.

Dixon is survived by a brother and sister.

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